The Constitution as Supreme Law

The U.S. Constitution calls itself the "supreme law of the land." This clause is taken to mean that when state constitutions or laws passed by state legislatures or the national Congress are found to conflict with the federal Constitution, they have no force. Decisions handed down by the Supreme Court over the course of two centuries have confirmed and strengthened this doctrine of constitutional supremacy.

Final authority is vested in the American people, who can change the fundamental law, if they wish, by amending the Constitution or -- in theory, at least -- drafting a new one. The people do not exercise their authority directly, however. They delegate the day-to-day business of government to public officials, both elected and appointed.

The power of public officials is limited. Their public actions must conform to the Constitution and to the laws made in accord with the Constitution. Elected officials must stand for re-election at periodic intervals, when their records are subject to intensive public scrutiny. Appointed officials serve at the pleasure of the person or authority who appointed them, and may be removed when their performance is unsatisfactory. The exception to this practice is the lifetime appointment by the president of justices of the Supreme Court and other federal judges, so that they may be free of political obligations or influence.

Most commonly, the American people express their will through the ballot box. The Constitution, however, does make provision for the removal of a public official from office, in cases of extreme misconduct or malfeasance, by the process of impeachment. Article II, Section 4 reads:

The President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Impeachment is a charge of misconduct brought against a government official by a legislative body; it does not, as is commonly thought, refer to conviction on such charges. As set forth in the Constitution, the House of Representatives must bring charges of misconduct by voting a bill of impeachment. The accused official is then tried in the Senate, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding at the trial.

Impeachment is considered a drastic measure, one that has been used on only rare occasions in the United States. The House of Representatives has voted articles of impeachment just 17 times in the history of the country. Thirteen of the 17 persons who have been impeached were federal judges, as were all seven individuals convicted by the Senate.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached over issues relating to the proper treatment of the defeated Confederate states following the Civil War. The Senate, however, fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction, and Johnson completed his full term in office. In 1974, as a result of the Watergate affair, President Richard Nixon resigned from office after the Judiciary Committee of the House recommended impeachment, but before the full House of Representatives could vote on a bill of impeachment.

State officials are similarly subject to impeachment by the legislatures of their respective states. In 1988, for example, the Arizona state legislature impeached its governor and removed him from office.